There is more to school than simply learning the facts, especially for young children in preschool classes. Research from the University at Buffalo found that positive classroom interactions are—for four-year-olds—perhaps more important to children’s future academic development than learning letters and numbers. The researchers found that when teachers used a positive emotional tone and fostered a positive environment in the classroom, students developed stronger self-regulation skills.

The study evaluated data from 800 racially and ethnically diverse preschool children from 60 classes and five school systems in the Southeast United States. The researchers found a direct relationship between what children experience in the classroom and how much they learn to self-regulate. Self regulation, or executive functioning, refers to skills like paying attention, controlling effort, and being persistent. While children in school can learn the alphabet fairly easily, many children struggle with self-regulatory skills throughout their academic careers.

This is the first study to show that self-regulation skills are something to be actively developed, rather than something that will develop naturally as children age. It also lends credence to something many teachers know from experience: classes with positive affective interactions lead to better acquisition of cognitive skills for students. There is a direct relationship between how much children learn to self-regulate and what happens in class.

“Oddly, a positive tone in the classroom does not just affect children’s social development. The more positively welcoming classrooms are, the more children are going to learn in them … Pre-K classrooms ought to be a place where people enjoy learning together,” commented Dale Farran, senior associate director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College for education and human development.

This research is published in School Psychology Quarterly.

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